The Art of Plain Speaking


For almost thirty years, Penguin cover designs were typographic, with occasional small illustrations creeping in over time. After the introduction of pictorial covers in the early 1960s, there were still occasions when they returned to typographic designs. But instead of just communicating verbal information as before, they now used type as a pictorial idea with the letters forming an expressive image. Here is a selection from the 1960s and 70s.

The Complete Plain Words was designed by David Pelham in plain type, taking the title of the book literally. The extreme simplicity is offset by the droll gesture of leaving so much ‘plain’ space before you arrive at the author’s name.

Knots, designed by Jutta Wener, is set in Futura, the least likely typeface to suggest knots. Its strict geometric clarity presents the title and author without illustrative fuss, but the close letter-spacing over a gloomy black gives the cover a certain tension, hinting at the message of the book, by the psychiatrist RD Laing


Face to Face is the autobiography of a young Indian, blind from childhood. The cover design, by Grant Grimbly, uses a black void with tiny white letters.

Writers at Work is a collection of interviews with writers. The simple typesetting uses a typewriter font.


Jonathan Cape, Publisher uses the simple bibliographic trick of making the cover look like the title page inside. It’s a nod to the contents of the book, the biography of the book publisher.

Anti-Memoirs has a stark, factual cover with sharp sans type. It’s blunt effect seems to state “there is nothing more to say.”


Birdsall’s typographic covers


“Now here’s an anecdote,” Derek Birdsall begins his story about his designs for Penguin’s Graham Greene covers in 1973 …

Greene was one of the most successful authors in the world and had decided he was so well known that his books no longer needed illustrated covers – lettering should be enough.

He may have been influenced in this by the author JD Salinger who had a ban on illustrated covers for his books. And perhaps Greene was influenced by a spat over low-class photographic covers that were art directed by Alan Aldridge in 1966.

Derek Birdsall, a frequent designer for Penguin, was asked to talk Greene out of this decision because typographic covers were a commercial risk in the new visual environment of modern bookshops. But during his phone conversation with Greene (“he had a lovely, soft, slightly lispy voice”) the author persuaded Birdsall of his point of view. The designer would use only author and title in an elegant serif type with minimalist space around.

“Now it has to be said that the pictures on his books were fantastic illustrations by the great Paul Hogarth so I knew I was up against it … I did these tarty bits of type, very elegant, almost putting it in your face that there’s no illustration.”   

The printing went ahead with the plain covers but things did not turn as planned; Greene and Birdsall were proved wrong …“This was nearly the end of the affair with me and Penguins because the sales went down by half I think. Even the great and good Grahame Greene agreed to put the drawings back.” *


Birdsall had liked the plain typographic cover in his design for Jean-Paul Sartre’s Words which had come out the year before the Greenes, in 1972.

This is my favourite of all the covers I ever did for Penguins. Why? Because it’s the definition of a cover that doesn’t need a picture. It’s called Words and the first sentence says it all. And the whole idea is expressed in the graphic and in the typography.”

/////.//                Then in 2005, he recycled the idea again for the Pocket Penguins series that celebrated 70 years of Penguin Books. Birdsall said, “I thought, why shouldn’t I celebrate my own Penguin days with a reflection of the same cover.”

Swiss Mini Modern


The influence of the Swiss Typographic Style has had a long reign at Penguin. Bursting out in 1961 with Romek Marber’s famous grid, it has reappeared in different forms ever since.

Penguin art director Jim Stoddart employed a version of the Swiss style in his layouts for the Mini Modern series. The formula is very simple: no illustration and just serif type in black & white with a silvery-grey background. The covers have a minimalist aesthetic – achieving the maximum with the minimum, but with elegance.                                                   borges-mini-modern///./updike-mini-modern//////james-mini-modern.   ..james-mini-modern-2//

On his website Stoddart has published the design grid he formulated for the series. Look for other grids on the site, it reinforces the impression of classical design rigor at Penguin that goes all the back to the 1940s and the era of Jan Tschichold and Hans

The Mini Moderns were published as a “memorial” to the Penguin Modern Classics which started in 1961:  “In 2011, on the fiftieth anniversary of the modern classics, we’re publishing fifty mini modern classics: the very best short fiction…”

One of the most successful of all Penguin Modern Classics was JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye, published with this elegant minimalist cover in the late 1960s. Is this what inspired Jim Stoddart in his art direction of the Mini Moderns series?